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A catfish print entitled How the Earthquake Modified Ōtsue Songs (Jishin dōka Ōtsue bushi) explicitly brings the genre of Ōtsue, paintings made for travelers in the vicinity of Ōtsu on the shores of Lake Biwa, into the context of the Ansei Edo earthquake. The printmakers of 1855 frequently appropriated Ōtsue motifs such as a catfish pinned down by a gourd. The top of How the Earthquake Modified Ōtsue Songs features Ōtsue verses modified to reflect post-earthquake conditions, and the bottom features images of the major Ōtsue motifs, similarly modified to reflect post-earthquake Edo. The prominent gourd-catfish in the middle says, “From Shinano I worked my way up to the capital along the Tōkaidō,” referring to the Zenkōji and the Ansei Tōkai/Nankai earthquakes and possibly others. One of the members of the construction trades holding down the gourd says, “Getting this earthquake under control will renew society.”[1] More than any of its predecessors, the Ansei Edo earthquake was a transformational event. The obvious items in this example are the appropriation of Ōtsue, not previously associated with earthquakes, and the transfer of wealth associated with world renewal. The Ansei Edo earthquake occurred during an okage year of special religious significance after a series of other major earthquakes that appeared, geographically, to have started in Kyoto (1830, another okage year) and worked their way toward the shogun's capital. In such a perspective, denizens of Edo and other Japanese could reasonably regard Ansei Edo as a capstone event, although at least some feared that it was not. Recent earthquakes and other significant events of the recent past took on renewed meaning with the benefit of hindsight at the end of 1855. The Ansei Edo earthquake was rich in meanings, both soon after it occurred and for decades thereafter. Major earthquakes can function simultaneously to cause social change, as a catalyst accelerating trends already in play, and as a window through which to view society at a time of unusual stress and upheaval. Focusing on popular discourse, this chapter examines ways that the townspeople of Edo found or created meaning in the earthquake. To bring out the broader significance of the earthquake, where appropriate I discuss recent past events such as the arrival of Commodore Matthew Perry and events that occurred twelve years later, especially the outbursts of frenzied dancing known as ee ja nai ka. As one short verse circulating at the time put it, “The great earthquake that has shaken and corrected this imbalanced society / Has shaken those above and has shaken those below.”[2] My main argument is that although the Ansei Edo earthquake was not a revolutionary event in and of itself, some of its effects conditioned Edo society for major change.

Strong medicine

The idea of the earthquake as social correction lent itself to medicinal metaphors. The earthquake became strong medicine to cure an ailing society by bringing it back into balance. Catfish Powdered Medicine Pouches (Furidashi namazu-gusuri) is a good example. The print features an anthropomorphic catfish as a peddler of powdered medicine “made in Giant Gourd Hall.” He carries a box with a gourd emblem on it, a fan with “powdered medicine” (furidashi) written on it, and a straw-tipped pole. Instead of medicine pouches, miniature figures representing occupations that benefited from the earthquake populate his pole. The text of the print explains that this wondrously efficacious catfish medicine, not to be confused with eel medicine, is effective in restoring health by curing seasonal lack of circulation to enhance the economic vitality of society. It does its work by causing strong movements that dislodge the accumulations in storehouses that have built up over the years. The result is a downward flow of gold and silver that is now well circulating in society. This circulation warms cold-hearted people and cures the disease of poverty. The medicine also cures laziness and excessive luxury. The main dose was taken on the night of the second day of the tenth month, and smaller doses (aftershocks) have been taken thereafter.[3] The earthquake, in other words, functioned as a violent purgative cure for the constipated body of society.

Another print entitled Wondrous Efficacy of the Earthquake's Blessing Jishin myōsaku kudokusan) takes a similar approach. It features the Kashima deity as a medicine seller on a stage pointing to a picture of a giant catfish. The text likens the fires that broke out in thirty-six places after the earthquake to moxa treatments. There was pain at first, caused by dwelling outside in makeshift shelters. But the pain of this treatment yielded ample rewards in the form of abundant work, high wages, and plenty of temporary brothels. The temporary housing in five locations was also a beneficial aftereffect. The text then lists benefits deriving from the earthquake, including the use of money and its circulation, debt forgiveness, wealth disgorged and flowing downward, and increased wages—all economic matters. Bad effects of the medicine include damage to houses, storehouses, and the earth's surface and the calling in of loans. Those using this medicine should take it after 10 p.m.[4] In this view, the earthquake was a powerful corrective for society, effective but with severe, painful side effects.

Characterizing the earthquake as medicine to correct or renew an imbalanced society was close in meaning to regarding the event as a divine punishment. As with past earthquakes, those otherwise critical of social morality would have claimed any major earthquake as an affirmation of their agendas. Writings to this effect were marginal, however, and outside of that genre, the theme of divine punishment was relatively muted in 1855. Indeed, this theme was more prominent in the discourse following the 1923 Great Kantō Earthquake.[5] Nevertheless, the idea was surely on the minds of many townspeople, and it occasionally received explicit discussion. Early modern moralists tended to stress that major social groups—but not the ruler (emperor, shogun, or daimyō)—had become greedy, selfish, lazy, and so forth. Because the Ansei Edo earthquake took place during an okage year, soon after the signing of the Treaty of Kanagawa, shook the shogun's capital, and destroyed the artillery batteries and other manifestations of bakufu authority, it was almost ideally situated to be read as an anti-bakufu event. On the other hand, the bakufu relief response was fast and effective, and many townspeople enjoyed windfall profits. Moreover, Edo was in effect a company town, with the bakufu as the source of people's livelihood. These factors, much more than any coercive force the bakufu potentially wielded, worked against reading the earthquake as a strong rebuke of the shogun's government. Nevertheless, there were serious political issues at the time, especially in the realm of foreign policy, and many townspeople paid close attention to them. In this context, it is inevitable that some would interpret the earthquake, at least in part, as a rebuke of certain policies. Advocates of the policy of “expelling the barbarians” (jōi), for example, did not fare well. Fujiokaya Diary (Fujiokaya nikki) includes earthquake commentary in the form of popular drama, chanted tales (chobokure), and political graffi i (rakugaki). One fictionalized reworking of a chanted tale, “Rites for Preserving the Thousand-Generation Reign” (Sendai hokyū rei), suggests that the earthquake might be a cause for concern with respect to regime continuation. The passage begins with a lament directed at “Mito-sama” for his role in causing the present earthquake. The deaths of Fujita Tōkō and Toda Hōken, prominent advocates of the expulsion of foreigners and associates of Mito Nariaki, were widely reported in the days after the earthquake.[6] Moreover, Mito Nariaki had recently incurred the enmity of Buddhist temples owing to his formal proposal to the bakufu, ultimately rejected, that temples contribute their bells to be melted down to cast cannon for coastal defense.[7] The passage next explains that “indeed, it must be divine punishment for the earthquake to have occurred while the august deities were all away to Izumo” and implores Mito-sama to think about this matter well. The passage goes on to suggest that the earthquake was ultimately the “divine medicine” of Ise. Although primarily a reference to Amaterasu, here “Ise” probably had a secondary association with bakufu leader Abe Masahiro, whose court title was “Ise no kami” (Lord of Ise). Although Abe and the other bakufu senior councilors ultimately rejected Nariaki's proposal, they did consider it or at least gave the appearance of considering it. The text then asks “Ise-sama” why, despite his wise compassion, he allowed Edo to be shaken up to an extent not even likely to occur in China? It abruptly changes tone in the end, praising the establishment of temporary shelters as “benevolent compassion and succor that has soaked people with tears of gratitude.” The passage concludes by characterizing this situation as an instance of world renewal.[8]

Nariaki's proposed melting down of temple bells was widely known in the months prior to the earthquake, and it produced political graffiti. One example reads, “Arrogance not corrected as the years go by—crushing temples to forge cannon.” Significantly, there was an upsurge of this kind of graffiti in the wake of the earthquake. The typical approach was to blame Nariaki for causing the earthquake by incurring divine wrath. This example refers to Kashima's absence during the tenth month: “As punishment, Heaven shook the earth, caused the deity to be absent, crashed houses to the ground, and froze the marketplace.”[9] A catfish print also portrayed the earthquake as divine punishment for Nariaki's proposal. Nariaki sits menacingly atop a temple bell, rifle in hand, while the spirits of the dead cluster behind him. A figure representing Abe Masahiro hides inside the bell. In this portrayal, the earthquake and all of its consequences are the responsibility of Nariaki and possibly the cowardly Masahiro for not firmly rejecting Nariaki's proposal to begin with.[10] Clearly, Nariaki's opponents used the occasion of the earthquake to advocate for their views. Moreover, it is possible that such advocacy, combined with the deaths of expulsion advocates Tōkō and Hōken, helped sway the views of some townspeople regarding pressing issues of the day.

These items indicate some of the complexities in interpreting the Ansei Edo earthquake in political terms. The situation on the ground was multifaceted, in terms of patterns of destruction, different interests within society, and different political factions. There was a rough consensus among commentators at the time that the earthquake was a blow to expulsion advocates in the realm of foreign affairs. Moreover, there was a tendency at many levels of society to criticize Nariaki, whose household and mansion suffered severe damage and a high death toll, the stress from which seems to have adversely affected his psychological stability. Although Nariaki was a member of the Tokugawa family, he and his policies were out of favor when the earthquake struck. It is possible to find implied critiques of the bakufu, with deities serving as proxies. One example is a broadside featuring Amaterasu arriving in Edo (fig. 9). Called “Tentō,” Amaterasu appears in human form, clad in priestly robes, whose head is replaced by the shining sun. In modern Japanese, “Tentō” refers to the sun in an anthropomorphic way (usually as O-Tentō-sama), and in premodern texts the name often referred to a supreme ruler of the universe. In this print, Tentō is clearly the equivalent of Amaterasu. A crowd has gathered, some of whom worship Tentō, while others attack Kashima with their fists and push over the Foundation Stone. Two Kashima shrine priests try in vain to restrain the angry mob. Tentō carries a hoe, and gold coins appear in the ground he digs up with it. In the text, the crowd states that there is no need for the Foundation Stone.[11]

Kashima was the highest protective deity of Edo, who guarded the dangerous northeast approach to the city. The bakufu supported the Kashima Shrine as the outermost ring of a network of supernatural forces defending the shogun's castle.[12] The potential anti-bakufu message is clear from the visual components in the print: to prosper, replace Kashima (bakufu) with Amaterasu (imperial court), violently if necessary. The message in the print is especially powerful in light of the frequent references elsewhere to the Foundation Stone as guarantor of social and political continuity.

The revolutionary potential expressed in this print did not occur in 1855, nor did it even become a prominent theme in rhetoric. Indeed, the bakufu itself, especially the City Magistrate and Machigaisho, came through the earthquake looking very good in the eyes of many townspeople. Temporary housing in particular stood out as an example of benevolent government. For example, Record of the Times (Jifūroku) praises the “august benevolence” of the “wise lord” (meikun) for saving the poor through food relief and temporary shelters.[13] Fujiokaya Diary contains a short set of Buddhist-style associations. High prices, for example, are associated with “greed,” and the temporary shelters are associated with “benevolent government.”[14] Despite such praise for government benevolence, however, the earthquake caused more than financial damage to the bakufu. Although difficult to quantify, the shaking of Edo served as a catalyst that eroded the bakufu's image as the most powerful military organization in the realm.

Figure 9 Amaterasu comes to Edo, bestowing wealth as “Tento” (“the sun”), while an angry crowd attacks the Kashima deity and the Foundation Stone. Courtesy of the National Diet Library, Japan (

  • [1] Print #175 in Miyata Noboru and Takada Mamoru, eds., Namazue: shinsai to Nihon bunka (Ribun shuppan, 1995), 347–348. See also Suehiro Sachiyo, “Ōtsue no hyōtan-namazu,” in Miyata and Takada, Namazue, 182–185. To view this print, see ukiyoe/0C/0277-C014.jpg.
  • [2] “Kainai jishinroku,” in NJS, vol. 5, supplement 2, part 1, 503.
  • [3] Print #195 in Miyata and Takada, Namazue, 222, 356–357. To view this print, see–087/00001.jpg.
  • [4] Print #196 in Miyata and Takada, Namazue, 357. To view this print, see–039/00001.jpg.
  • [5] In the aftermath of the Great Kantō Earthquake of September 1923, for example, General Ugaki Kazushige characterized the disaster as a “divine punishment against us who had aspired to a culture of materialism and degrading thoughts,” and the November 11, 1923, Imperial Rescript Enjoining Sincere and Strenuous Life amplified such sentiments to encourage a greater focus on the public good in citizens’ lives. See J. Charles Schencking, “The Great Kantō Earthquake and the Culture of Catastrophe and Reconstruction in 1920s Japan,” Journal of Japanese Studies 34, no. 2 (summer 2008): 305, 310.
  • [6] See, for example, “Tōbu jishin no ki,” in NJS, vol. 5, supplement 2, part 1, 559; “Ansei daijishin jikkendan,” in NJS, vol. 5, supplement 2, part 1, 474; and “Yabure mado no ki,” in DNJS, vol. 1 (kō), 560.
  • [7] FN, 577. See also NJS, vol. 5, supplement 2, part 1, 405 (truncated version), and Wakamizu Suguru, Edokko kishitsu to namazue (Kadokawa gakugei shuppan, 2007), 119–125.
  • [8] FN, 517.
  • [9] Wakamizu, Edokko, 125.
  • [10] Print #14 in Miyata and Takada, Namazue, 139, 245–246. See also print #201 (especially the thirteenth verse), 360–361, and Wakamizu, Edokko, 112–125. To view print #14, see
  • [11] Print #43 in Miyata and Takada, Namazue, 109, 265–266. See also Abe Yasunari, “Namazue no ue no Amaterasu,” Shisō 912 (June 2000): 43–44. To view the print, see figure 9 in the present volume.
  • [12] For more details on this matter, see Gregory Smits, “Conduits of Power: What the Origins of Japan’s Earthquake Catfish Reveal about Religious Geography,” Japan Review 24 (2012): 54–65.
  • [13] DNJS, vol. 2 (otsu), 539.
  • [14] FN, 516–517.
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